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Have We Hit the Limits of Human Population?

The last 200 years of economic growth have been based on a monumental Ponzi scheme that has pushed us toward the ultimate tipping point.

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Karl Marx and Engels put their faith in technology and believed that progress would continually expand agricultural production, mooting the issue of population growth. While they thought Darwin's use of the Law of Population to explain evolution had some validity, they insisted that humans were exempt. Animals were only "collectors" of nature's bounty, but humans were "producers" and masters of their own destiny.

Indeed, Malthus might have earned more respect for his Law of Population if he hadn't proposed it just at the moment when human production first tapped into the coal seams and oil streams that fueled the industrial expansion. It is only today, when those resources have peaked, that we are revealed to be much more like the other animals than we thought -- "collectors" of ancient sunlight, our fossil fuel inheritance, and not the all powerful "producers" we thought we were.

As a progressive, I want to believe that humanity can control our destiny. But as an ecologist, I have to accept the Law of Population. Is there no way out? Yes there is. But it requires us to embrace what Malthus called "vice."

Malthus saw three ways to control population growth: abstinence, misery and vice. Abstinence was too challenging for most. Misery included starvation, disease and death. That left vice: a category that included prostitution, abortion and infanticide, but also "promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed and improper arts to conceal the consequence of irregular connexions."

Blinders imposed by the church and centuries of violent repression of women healers and midwives had so deeply branded contraception as an "improper art" that even a revolutionary like Godwin could not advocate it. He could only insist that redistribution of wealth would result in more "moral restraint." Malthus found this laughable:

"I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished ... the best arguments for the perfectibility of man are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made."

When the radical Francis Place publicly advocated birth control in the 1820s, he was condemned for promoting vice by church, state and even his fellow working men in the labor unions he helped to found. Nearly a century later, Margaret Sanger finally opened her first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y., and contraception was only fully legalized in the United States in 1965. The definition of "vice" evolved very slowly.

Malthus' list of vices included infanticide, which today stands well apart from birth control, abortion, prostitution and homosexuality. And yet, throughout history and prehistory, infanticide was probably the most widely used method of curtailing population growth, mostly because the contraception and abortion methods of the past were either ineffective or dangerous to women.

Before the fossil fuel era, the need to prevent famine often dictated infanticide, especially female infanticide, which relieved population pressure by reducing the number of breeding females. It is good to know this bit of history, because it gives us the proper context for updating the definition of "vice."

Still, there are conservatives who would prefer to see famine and misery rather than condone contraceptives, abortion, women's rights and homosexuality. Among them is Pope Benedict, leader of the world's largest religious organization, who has just condemned untold numbers of Africans to death by opposing condoms for prevention of AIDS, because it might lead to "vice."

 
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